What’s the Matter with Michael?

23 Sep

Guest Blogger: Ira Livingston, Chair of Humanities and Media Studies, Pratt Institute

Michael Berube’s \”What\’s The Matter With Cultural Studies?\”– subtitled “the popular discipline has lost its bearings” (in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/14)– is a familiar version of what my friend George Cunningham calls a “ritual lament.”   Berube’s is so familiar– especially in my own demographic of just-beyond-middle-aged men– that it actually interests me: what makes this stultifying rhetorical stance so enduring?

The main content of Berube’s lament seems to be that cultural studies has not delivered on much of its activist political ambitions, and that it has failed to convince a still mostly vanguardist left that people are not simply dupes of mass media and in need of demystification.  This is reasonable enough, though it seems to rely on reductive notions of what counts as the left, as activism, and as politics, but let’s let that pass for the moment.  More of the story begins to emerge when you attend to the structure of feeling that shapes the lament.

Cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall is Berube’s primary foil in the essay—the one alongside whom all others fail to measure up– but Berube also cites approvingly the hard-hitting early work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson; the unflinchingly reflexive work on academic labor by Marc Bosquet, Cary Nelson, Andrew Ross, and Jeffrey Williams; and the work of cultural-studies emissaries into other disciplines; Berube mentions Mike Davis and Edward Soja in urban studies.

Notice anything about the scholars in this list?  Yep, they’re all men.  Journalist Ellen Willis is the only woman who gets a look in, presumably because her work can be considered real-world writing about hard-core politics (and not namby-pamby theorizing).

The rest of Berube’s essay follows suit.  He complains that Hall’s work on “race, ethnicity and diaspora is routinely and reverently cited” while his work on Thatcherism– in other words, his “real” political work (presumably as opposed to merely cultural politics)– “is thoroughly ignored.”  He regrets the common equation of cultural studies with scholarship on popular culture, that typically feminized realm of the shallow and sensational (at least since the 18th century, when male poets and others started railing about the success of female novelists).  And he laments that cultural studies has had more impact in English departments– the realm of the warm-and-fuzzy–  and less in sociology, one of the “harder” disciplines.  Alas, a once swaggering and virile field is forced to come to terms with its own relative impotence.

It becomes even clearer when Berube says he wants “to throw some cold water on the intellectual . . . history of cultural studies in America,” but he acknowledges that the headiest predictions for cultural studies as an institutional force have long seemed overly optimistic.  In light of the ongoing struggles of young cultural-studies scholars to break into the deeply conservative and discipline-bound terrain of universities, it just doesn’t seem like triumphalism is the main problem.  So what’s going on here?

Berube’s phrase “throw some cold water” is telling.  It signifies the notoriously libido-dampening effect of which Berube symbolically complains on behalf of cultural studies– a displaced lament for a loss of sexual drive and potency.  But why throw cold water on the rest of us?  Just because misery loves company?

The message with which Berube ends is that the whole field should not be condemned, only that it could “do a better job.”  This is a gesture only a patriarch could mean as a show of generosity.

There is something disingenuous about the ritual lament: if you really want to inspire people to do a better job, to light a fire under them, then the last thing you should do is to throw cold water.  So if he doesn’t really mean to exhort, what does the lamenter want?  I’ll get to this in a minute.  Meanwhile, it seems that Berube’s lament is part of the classically melancholic formation of masculinity, in which the stance of more-or-less heroic and stoic failure is enshrined as one of the leading character types, one of the approved ways of being a man.  It helps to have an attributive style in which, for example, rather than acknowledging that your own historical conjuncture may have passed, you simply accuse everyone else of missing the boat.  The more melodramatic version of this stance is that classic role, the disregarded prophet.  I’m sure some people must find this level of self-ignorance and disavowed neediness poignant.

"I AM big, it's the pictures that got small!"

"I AM big, it's the pictures that got small!"

If it weren’t so familiar, the irony would be positively surreal: a senior professor at a major research university complaining in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that most mainstream and legitimist of academic venues, that cultural studies has not lived up to its radical potential?!

But finally it is the emotional demand made by the lament that trumps whatever content it may carry, and I come to understand this more fully when I try to imagine myself as Berube’s ideal reader; that is, when I think what of kind of response Berube’s ritual lamentation dreams of eliciting:

Daddy, you poor thing!  You’ve done so much for us, and we’ve never loved you enough!  You tried to deliver us, but we fell back into worshipping the golden calf!  But now we see the error of our ways!  We love you daddy!  And we promise promise promise to do a better job.

But meanwhile, can you please, PLEASE stop whimpering?

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14 Responses to “What’s the Matter with Michael?”

  1. Ted September 23, 2009 at 7:29 am #

    I agree with your criticism of Michael Berube. And I think he try to make a binary opposition to say which approach is more othordox and political, what is more activist. I think he is asking the wrong question. Instead, i think the key point lies on how to articulate different forms of activism and approach, to articulate the theoretical goal/framework to the daily life social praxis , through articulation how to empower the difference and have more profound understanding of the context we are living in. Or maybe the question should be like if there could be an articulation between so called “activists”/leftists and so called CS that focuses on identity politics/cultural representation. What is the political result of different approach on different subject? And More important question is about the organic relation between theory and practice, between structure and the subject? The articulation are never perfect, every approach has its limits, but how to reach a better way together to keep on fighting beyond but still seeing the difference of each other is better than like Berube’s saying to charge CS of doing less and without reflecting the difference, reflecting its (the othordox leftists, sociologists) underlying violence/limits.

    But meanwhile, i also think he brings out sth sad, according to my experience in certain CS conferences in Taiwan.
    after the institutionalization of CS, I feel a tendency (or risk?) that some researches, maybe few, in cultural studies, especially among young researchers/postgraduates, just lose originality, controversiality, antagonism/or politics. These researches become the other kind of reductionist following a paradigm–seeing a phenomenon, mix it with certain theory and textual analysis, and suddenly the result of the research is the agency or politics of a subject (and sometimes they aren’t or don’t even contact the subject). the problem of these researches is that they often easily explain away as a background or fail to see discourses, social/cultural context and history that produce the phenomenon. so I mean, cultural studies, which embrace differences and marginality from different culture and academia, become somehow a trendy academic location and an easy access for some researches without more profound reflection on their work in relation to CS, intellectual, the society (or social-cultural involvement), their own academic discipline , and even themselves. I am not sure if my feeling is correct or not, because the feeling are combined by many 15mins presentations annually, and those presentation are just maybe these researches’ part of research result. Or maybe i just expect too much.

    The cultural instutionalization that aims to offer more research resources for scholars and students as well as students trained in cultural studies program face challenges from other traditional disclipines: certain proposals of cultural studies programs are denied/marginalized by the educational administration and other disciplines, and students after graduation from the program do not know how to locate themselves in the academy since they are not orthodox enough and are required to afford to do some extra work that they just don’t know or familiar with once they are in a tranditional discipline. Besides the future route of the intellectual and activism of CS practices, i am concern about where is the way out to open up such squeezed marginality in the academic institution?

    Sorry, my thinking does not lie in the U.S. context and is kinda messy. it is just my immediate feeling after seeing the arguement here.

  2. Michael Bérubé September 23, 2009 at 8:26 am #

    The main content of Berube’s lament seems to be that cultural studies has not delivered on much of its activist political ambitions, and that it has failed to convince a still mostly vanguardist left that people are not simply dupes of mass media and in need of demystification. This is reasonable enough, though it seems to rely on reductive notions of what counts as the left, as activism, and as politics, but let’s let that pass for the moment.

    It’s reasonable enough but it seems to rely on reductive notions of all the key terms? How odd. Anyway, no, I didn’t say that cultural studies has failed to deliver on its activist political ambitions, and I didn’t say it failed to live up to its radical potential. That would be Bob McChesney’s critique, with which I have little to no sympathy. My argument is that cultural studies hasn’t transformed the disciplines.

    In light of the ongoing struggles of young cultural-studies scholars to break into the deeply conservative and discipline-bound terrain of universities, it just doesn’t seem like triumphalism is the main problem.

    Or you could say: in light of the ongoing struggles of young cultural-studies scholars to break into the deeply conservative and discipline-bound terrain of universities, I’m pretty much right to criticize the triumphalist prediction that “cultural studies” would replace “the humanities” in universities.

    He complains that Hall’s work on “race, ethnicity and diaspora is routinely and reverently cited” while his work on Thatcherism– in other words, his “real” political work (presumably as opposed to merely cultural politics)– “is thoroughly ignored.”

    Ah, no again. I’ve pretty consistently defended cultural studies from Ye Olde “merely cultural” claim. The point remains that Hall’s essays for Marxism Today — which was, btw, considered to be a “merely cultural” leftist journal by the He-Man Left of the 1980s — are largely unanthologized and unread today.

    As for the strained (but heroic!) gender-baiting of my crisis-of-masculinity whimpering about a once swaggering, virile field, etc., etc., I actually do defend feminist cultural studies in The Longer Version. I offered a snippet of it at this blog a few days ago. Also in TLV, at no extra cost: a discussion of the Nancy Fraser – Judith Butler impasse.

    There, there now, ideal reader. Daddy still loves you.

  3. bullybloggers September 23, 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    Michael–
    Whatever may be written about feminist (and queer?) cultural studies elsewhere, it is quite striking that the Major Figures who have done The Hard Work and make the cut for the widely circulated piece are overwhelmingly Big Men. Of course it’s required that at least one woman and one person of color be mentioned–and that they be especially highly praised. But such lists effectively redefine cultural studies away from many of its major creators and constituencies, handing it over to Big Men who have the “hard” hitting work and the “general” view–who have done it “right.” This selection process is not innocent, nor is it redeemed by accolades to feminists, etc. elsewhere. Many of us aligned with cultural studies would come up with quite a different genealogy, and a different list of Major Players, now wouldn’t we?
    Lisa Duggan

  4. Caren Kaplan September 23, 2009 at 1:15 pm #

    Thanks, for hitting that nail, as it were, on the head, Ira! Stay tuned for a letter collaboratively written by a group of us from the Cultural Studies PhD program at UC Davis to the editor of CHE –if they won’t publish it, we’ll try to post it here!
    Caren Kaplan

  5. Michael Bérubé September 23, 2009 at 2:05 pm #

    Lisa–

    it is quite striking that the Major Figures who have done The Hard Work and make the cut for the widely circulated piece are overwhelmingly Big Men

    True dat. Let me clarify something I mistakenly thought was obvious: the list of boys (Williams, Ross, Nelson, Bousquet) was a list of people who’d written cultural-studies-inflected books on the university (since the session was, after all, called “the university after cultural studies”). So it would make sense, in response, to mention women who’ve done similar critiques of the university. I can think of Jennifer Washburn’s University Inc., but she’s a freelance journalist (and a fine one). Any other suggestions?

    As for Hoggart-Williams-Thompson: I’m not convinced that citing the major figures of the olden days is masculinist or Anglocentric or muchofanythingelseist. The field has gone in a thousand directions since then, many of them (like yours) more feminist and queer and rhizomatic than E.P. could have dreamed, and making the one point doesn’t preclude the other.

    On second reading, I think Ira’s “English soft, sociology hard” argument is very silly. My point was merely that there’s something kinda presumptuous about a bunch of English professors congratulating themselves on transforming the university with their wonder-working Cultural Studies devices when much of the university (a) doesn’t know we exist or (b) wishes we didn’t. And the argument about the surreality of a senior professor writing in the mainstream legitimist (legitimist?) CHE is even sillier. Now, Histoire de l’oeil, that’s surrealist. A person writing on cultural studies’ impact on the university in a newspaper that covers universities, not so much.

    As for UC-Davis’ program — I await the collaborative critique, and apologize for the oversight in the meantime. But why wait for the dead-tree version? The comments section over at CHE could use a little more, what is the phrase, informed comment.

  6. bullybloggers September 23, 2009 at 2:28 pm #

    Michael–
    Um, Sheila Slaughter? among many others… (I’m sure you’ll have a reason not to include her among the “cultural studies” guys though.) But that’s not the point. I think you chose the rubric of work on the university, among the many many rubrics available, so you could cite your friends as major figures and exceptions to the impotence you assign to unnamed others. They are permitted to escape the cold water bath. There are, in addition, other genealogies for “cultural studies” that would include but branch out from the Birmingham School. You are choosing. Others of us might cite genealogies with multiple roots leading from several or many other “origin” sites, you know? I’m sure you think yours is the Right one, the Best one, but that in and of itself is revealing. It is also revealing that the tone you employ continues to be paternalistic. But I’ll stop the back and forth here, and just compose my own post…..for this blog, for later this weekend… :>)
    Lisa Duggan

  7. Michael Bérubé September 23, 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    Sheila Slaughter? among many others… (I’m sure you’ll have a reason not to include her among the “cultural studies” guys though.)

    Thanks! Great call. Except for the bit about being sure of my bad faith.

    There are, in addition, other genealogies for “cultural studies” that would include but branch out from the Birmingham School. You are choosing. Others of us might cite genealogies with multiple roots leading from several or many other “origin” sites, you know? I’m sure you think yours is the Right one, the Best one, but that in and of itself is revealing. It is also revealing that the tone you employ continues to be paternalistic.

    Srsly? And Ira’s tone, from the heading of “whiny, whimpering men” right down to imagining that “ideal reader” that trumps whatever content my essay might actually contain, is perfectly OK with you? Well, that does darken my day, but I won’t return hostilities. I’ll just say that once upon a time, there was something that called itself “cultural studies,” and it had a Centre by that name. Decades later, people decided that that wasn’t the only story to tell about “cultural studies.” And while that was a good thing in some ways, as many de-Centerings are (indeed, I’m so old I can remember being chastised for writing that the readers of Social Text don’t need to be reminded of the heroic Hoggart-Williams-Thompson narrative yet again), it also led gradually to a state of affairs in which “cultural studies” came to mean pretty much anything anybody wanted it to mean.

  8. bullybloggers September 23, 2009 at 2:59 pm #

    See the newest post on this blog, A Note from the Unicorns, for a full and articulate response to the above.
    LD

  9. Michael Bérubé September 23, 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    Thanks! I’ve replied at my place.

  10. Antonio P. Grahmsci September 29, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    I can’t believe people still argue about this shit.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    [...] co-editor of the recent University of Illinois Press book Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader, takes on Michael Berube’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay “What’s the Matter [...]

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    [...] What’s the Matter with Michael, a sassy response by Ira Livingston, Chair of Humanities and Media Studies, Pratt Institute; you can read Michael’s response to him in the comments section. [...]

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    [...] including on Blogora and The Valve. On Bully bloggers, two posts defend the field. The first ‘What’s the Matter with Michael’ responds with an attack on Berube, while the second post makes several points of defense; [...]

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